Two Bills That Offer More Support to Relatives, Who are Expected to Play a Bigger Role Under Family First Act

In addition to planned legislation that makes significant changes to federal child welfare finance, two new federal bills have been introduced that would target support for relative caregivers, a key constituency in the reforms envisioned under the Family First Prevention Services Act that mostly takes effect in October.

The two bills, both introduced in the Senate, would push states to better prioritize the use of kin in their child protection plans, and open up more federal funds to serve relatives caring for loved ones.

The Family First Act will for the first time permit state agencies to use Title IV-E, the federal entitlement for child welfare services, to serve families without removing a child into foster care. For decades, IV-E has been limited to supporting states when they take custody of children or place them into adoptions.

The allowable new services under IV-E include evidence-based models that support substance abuse or mental health treatment, and parenting support. They are applicable only when caseworkers deem the child to be at “imminent risk” of entering foster care if those services are not deployed.

But the law also anticipates that in many instances, relatives will temporarily take in children while foster care prevention services are deployed. Family First does include new matching funds to support kinship navigator programs – one-stop centers aimed at supporting relatives – but does not dedicate any federal funds to directly assist kin in caring for kids.

These two bills would continue to carve out more federal support in this area. The Help Grandfamilies Prevent Child Abuse Act would amend the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), the central federal law on preventing and investigating abuse or neglect. This new bill would require that grantees of CAPTA funds “include plans for prioritizing placement with kin as the first placement, identifying and engaging kin as supports for children throughout the child’s involvement with the child welfare system, making it a priority to license kin as foster parents, supporting permanent families for children placed with kin, and creating a strong community network to support kin families.”

The Supporting Caregivers Act would make changes to the National Family Caregiver Support Programs (NFCSP), which is overseen by the federal Administration for Community Living. NFCSP allocates grants to be used in support of family who take in relatives. The funding flows through local Area Agencies on Aging (AAA).

In 2017, about $290 million went out to more than 1,300 local grantees through NFCSP. Presently, only 10 percent of those funds can be used to support older relative caregivers, such as grandparents caring for children when the parents struggle with a substance abuse issue.

This bill would raise the cap to 15 percent, and provide a direct request process where an AAA could spend over that 15 percent limit if it demonstrated an acute need in the community.

A much larger reform bill is in the works that would permit states to use another federal child welfare account, the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program, to pay relatives who care for children in this situation. The Family First Transition and Support Act of 2019, led by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), is expected to be introduced next month.

The Republican co-sponsor on both of the relative support bills is Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). She is joined on the CAPTA bill by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and on the caregiver support bill by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.). Both bills have been introduced unsuccessfully in previous Congressional terms.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.